Game Changer: Maricel Presilla

The Culinary Institute of America announced earlier this year that, for the first time since 1946 when the CIA opened, female students outnumber male students. As a result, women-owned food businesses are on the rise. But the media and the buzz-worthy conferences and award programs need to play some serious catch up, neutralizing the disparity in male-female coverage and accolade. Our Game Changers series will highlight the personalities and accomplishments made by  women in the food and hospitality industry throughout the Americas, celebrating the kickass women that you might not otherwise know about. To learn more about the column’s mission, you can check out our introduction to the series. First up, chef and culinary historian Maricel Presilla.

Cuban by birth, New Jersey native by choice, chef, author, and Latin American culinary historian Maricel Presilla has had a fascinating and visible career in food. This once-refugee cum American citizen has been named Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic (2012) by James Beard Foundation, and was inducted into the Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in 2015 as chef/owner of Hoboken restaurants Cucharamama and Zafra. Presilla has traveled extensively throughout the Americas to find both inspiration and ingredient for her menus and books, but for all of the accolades, Presilla’s most treasured honor is being the first Latin American woman asked to cook at the White House during the Obama administration’s first annual Fiesta Latina (2009), a salute to Latin American culture and music.

That very chef distinction served as the spark for her latest project, Peppers of the Americas, for which she grew hundreds of varieties of peppers in her backyard garden to understand and extrapolate on the characteristics and corresponding recipes of the New World’s most iconic food staple. As she recounts, “Fiesta Latina was a pivotal moment in my relationship with peppers,” going on to create a detailed dinner for over 400 guests using peppers in every dish, as well as the room’s centerpieces. Like she did with her widely praised book The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, as well as the beloved Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America, which won James Beard Cookbook of the Year (2013), Presilla takes a subject close to her heart and researches, experiments and dissects the bounty and beauty of it. The result is a compendium rife with food history and cultural importance. Our first featured Game Changer, we caught up with the tireless Presilla about her latest opus and her love of Latin Americas many, many peppers.

New Worlder: You have arguably been the foremost authority on Latin cuisine in the U.S. Why is it so important to talk about and share the food stories coming out of the Americas?

Maricel Presilla: When I set out to write Gran Cocina Latina, I began with my own memories of cooking in Cuba and the stories I heard from friends who recalled the foods and flavors of their homelands as vividly as I did. These stories were like the magical gifts in a fairy tale. They were the keys that began to open Latin America up to me and to reveal its secrets. Once I began to travel all over the Americas, I felt exhilaration every time I tasted a dish that I had heard about in a story. I was savoring my friends’ memories, and enriching them with my own new experiences of smell, texture, and taste. I realized that in order to learn everything I wanted to learn, I would have to go back to the geographical Latin America and talk to the men and women who still guard the ancestral pots. I became convinced that it was only through such journey and by telling the stories of these remarkable cooks that I could come to terms with the important existential question of who we are as Latin Americans and understand our bonds as well as our differences. In the process, I was painfully aware that important traditions were being rapidly lost and that the stories that I could tell in my book and in everything I write might one day allow a richer past become another present.

Your last book, Gran Cocina Latina, was something of a love letter to Latin food, generally. Your latest book, Peppers of the Americas, is a one-ingredient deep-dive into peppers, albeit nearly 200 varieties. How was the process of creating this book different when looking at such a smaller topic? How was it similar?

MP: I spent much time researching and writing “The Layers of Latin Flavor,” the one chapter in Gran Cocina Latina that decodes key ingredients and techniques like the sofrito that define our many cuisines. But our part of the world is the undisputed cradle of all peppers and peppers are crucial for all Latin cuisines. Throughout an immense territory from Mexico down to Patagonia, peppers in rainbow hues and varying degrees of heat give flavor, body, and substance to Latin American cooking.  Though I had paid close attention to peppers as ingredients, I felt that they were important enough to deserve a more thorough independent treatment just as I had done with cacao and chocolate in my first book The New Taste of Chocolate. I had learned much about peppers while doing research for that book and Gran Cocina Latina and decided to travel again to areas where peppers are central, such as the Amazon. What made my research different and more immediate was to grow peppers in my garden to fully understand them in all stages of growth.  I soon realized then that I was not tackling a “smaller topic” but a hugely complex one, involving a number of disciplines like botany, genetics, archaeology, chemistry, gardening, and cooking.

Why peppers? Can you tell us a bit about the moment that you knew this would be the topic of your next book?

MP: There was not a single moment of epiphany that led me to this book but the confluence of a number of favorable circumstances that were difficult to ignore. I had been growing and working on peppers for a long time and I was in awe of their culinary versatility and their beauty. As the daughter of a painter and a bit of a visual artist myself, I saw the opportunity to produce a beautiful gallery of peppers with food photographer Romulo Yanez and botanical illustrator Julio Figueroa.  But the book evolved into a more serious and lengthier project when I began to read everything I could find on peppers and realized that research had advanced too profoundly to be glossed over. But if there is a moment of epiphany in this journey from the garden to the printed page, it was asking peppers to be used instead of flowers when I cooked at the White House at Fiesta Latina. I used peppers in every menu item and even in a 1644 recipe for hot chocolate. Peppers looked splendid displayed in tall glass cylinders, perhaps for the first time, in different rooms of the White House.

You cover nearly 200 varieties of peppers in your book. Did you taste, test, and experiment with all of them? How did you get to know some of the lesser-known and produced varieties?

MP: I have been growing hundreds of peppers through the years and I have taken detailed notes of their patterns of growth and flowering, the shape and color of their fruits and, most importantly, their heat and flavor. The peppers in my book represent a fraction of what I had studied. To keep the book affordable and manageable, we had to cut hundreds of peppers from the final list. But I did taste and cook with every single pepper that we chose to include. I plant peppers from seed, mostly collected through my travels in Latin America, and as seedlings from reputable U.S. growers with whom I have established strong relationships through the years. It is extraordinary to see the ample repertoire of pepper cultivars available to dedicated U.S. gardeners.

What was one of the discoveries in creating this book?

MP: More than a discovery, it was an appreciation of how incredibly beautiful and useful peppers are.  When I walk through my pepper garden during the time of peak ripeness for dozens of cultivars, every plant seems to be a living jewel display. No other fruit found in nature achieves such glowing intensity. The book is out and I am still growing hundreds of peppers, in my New Jersey backyard. This year, I grew many more varieties from seed. I am particularly proud of my success growing several Amazonian peppers and the very hot aji guaguao as well as several types of sweet aji cachucha from different parts of Cuba, including my home region, Oriente. The plants grew strong and resilient and are still heavy with fruit.

Conversely, what are the peppers that you find yourself using most often in your cooking?

MP: For seasoning, I gravitate toward flavorful chinenses like the intensely perfumed ají charapita from the Peruvian Amazon, the iconic dátil pepper from St. Augustine (which originally came from Cuba), and the sweeter and equally aromatic ají dulce cultivars from the Hispanic Caribbean and Venezuela. But I also like to use peppers as vegetables for roasting and pan-frying. I adore Japanese manganji peppers and shishitos as well as succulent Padrón peppers, green and red long thick cayennes, poblanos, meaty New Mexican types, and fruity orange jalapeños. Though hard to grow in New Jersey because they ripen late in the season, I am partial to the Holy Trinity of Peruvian cooking, ají amarillo, rocoto and ají panca. I like to say to myself that not too many Peruvian grow these in their gardens and very few have seen a fresh ají panca, a versatile and mildly hot  C. chinense that is mostly found in dried form in Peruvian markets.

Are you a pepper purist – Peruvian recipes can only use Peruvian peppers, Spanish can only use Spanish – or do you feel that the varieties and qualities that abound should be used interchangeably?

MP: I can afford to be a purist because I either grow hard-to-find peppers or know where to get them. But I am aware of procurement problems and I always give suggestions about substitutions. This  is what I say about this important issue in Peppers of the Americas:

“A good rule of thumb is that the readily available jalapeños and serranos will always deliver clean, moderate heat and pleasant unobtrusive green notes, but there are other annuum peppers like the Fresno, Santa Fe Grande, and several types of cayenne that have similar heat and flavor notes. On the other hand, if a recipe calls for the perfumed notes and intense heat of some exotic chinenses that are only available in season, most likely grown in your garden, the go-to pepper is always the reliable habanero or a combination of a perfumed heatless chinense like the Caribbean ají dulce or cachucha (available in most Latin American markets) and a straightforward hot annuum.”

The U.S. has had love affairs with peppers like piquillo and chipotle and jalapeños – more common varieties. What do you think is coming next for the American palate?

MP: There is a class of U.S. growers who proudly define themselves as chileheads who focus almost absolutely on superhot peppers of the C. chinense type and excruciatingly hot hybrids, some of their own creation. While I am fascinated by Trinidad superhots like the Moruga Scorpion, I only grow deeply perfumed superhots such as this to use judiciously and sparingly in my cooking. I don’t believe in growing anything that would require me to wear a protective mask that is better suited to chemical warfare than cooking. In fact, my latest realization is that some of the superhot hybrids don’t have the alluring floral aroma of more common C. chinenses like the habanero, the dátil, or the ají charapita, but rather offend the senses with the disagreeable stench of an old goat. I believe that Americans will continue exploring hot peppers of many kinds but also dried pepper seasonings that are more flavorful than hot like crushed Urfa Biber, Maras pepper flakes, and ground ají mirasol and ají panca.

As more of the world embraces cooking with peppers in a more mainstream way, are there implications for the producers and farmers of peppers throughout the Americas?

MP: The developing taste for peppers in the U.S. and around the world is creating new opportunities and challenges in Latin America. Tabasco peppers for use in the famous sauce produced by McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana, come from Mexico, Guatemala Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru among other places. Already, Mexico and other Latin American countries are important suppliers of fresh and dried peppers for  the United States. Besides the usual suspects–poblanos, jalapeños and serranos—Mexico-grown manzano chiles, the yellow orange cousins of rocoto, the iconic C. pubescens of Peru and Bolivia, are often available in U.S. Latin markets. Until recently, Peru could only export dried and frozen peppers to the U.S.  Beginning in 2016, the USDA has allowed Peruvian growers to export fresh peppers as well. But these peppers must be grown in certified greenhouses, which obviously leave out the thousands of small pepper farmers that grow many important landraces in small plots of land throughout the country. It is obvious that the pepper agribusiness requires capital and will focus on commercially viable cultivars and not in the fascinating and lesser known cultivars that brighten up regional cuisines.

You’re Cuban, grew up in Cuba, and yet Cuban food isn’t heavily associated with peppers. Can you talk about some of the origins of Cuban peppers?

MP: In Cuba, where native populations dwindled to the verge of extermination under the pressure of Spanish colonization, sweet cultivars like the cubanelle, bell pepper, and the tiny ají dulce (a sweet, non-spicy C. chinense) rule, featuring  largely in every sofrito while hot peppers are either added sparingly to particular dishes or pickled in vinegar and sprinkled judiciously over food at the table. Paradoxically, it was the Spaniards who carried their love for the sweet fleshy peppers that had been developed in Spain to Cuba. But the island has been home to delicious and very hot peppers since pre-Colombian times.  The most important are the ají guaguao, a C. frutescens similar in taste and shape to Tabasco, and two important C. chinenses, the dátil pepper which was adopted by cooks in St. Augustine starting in the 19th century and an ancestor of the chile habanero that took the Yucatan by storm.

The nuance between hot and sweet peppers is often misunderstood. How do you achieve the right balance when cooking?

MP: I am interested in peppers that are flavorful and aromatic with just enough heat to bring out not only the inherent flavor of the peppers themselves, but to enhance the impact of the other seasonings and ingredients in a dish. I often combine three peppers of a particular species like C. chinense in a tropical shrimp ceviche. I use sweet ají chachucha or ají dulce for a floral aroma foundation. A few pods of ají charapita brighten up the ceviche sauce with flashes of heat and also aroma while a mild Suave habanero adds beautiful color and fruitiness without heat. The glory of cooking with peppers is to learn to combine them in a balanced way to achieve rich nuances of flavor and aroma that will enhance not overpower food.

Below, an assortment of the recipes featured in Peppers of the Americas. From left to right, Pepper “Steaks” with Pepper Leaf Chimichurri, Tamalón, and Tropical Shrimp Ceviche with Yuca. If you want your own copy of Maricel Presilla’s Peppers of the Americas, click here to purchase.

The Game Changer Five

Last supper, last cocktail?

Here I am borrowing what someone wise once said. I’ll eat and drink anything as long as it can be shared.

Next up on your travel itinerary?

Nicaragua and Peru

Mentor/Idol?

Chef Felipe Rojas Lombardi for restaurant cooking and Dr. Norman F. Cantor for teaching me to always think like a historian even when I am cooking.

Best lesson your mother taught you?

Generosity is the best seasoning.

How do you inspire the next generation?

By being a hands-on explorer of food, for always looking for primary sources, and being a crusader for all things Latin American.

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